Guest Post by Annie Whitehead: Breathing Life into Medieval Characters
I decided that I wanted to write stories when I was about eight. I have been interested in history since I was about eight or nine. It was only when I was an undergraduate in London in the 1980s that I realised I wanted to write about history.
My first two historical novels both came about because of a single sentence. In the case of To Be a Queen, the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter Aethelflaed, it was a sentence about her husband. My tutor said of Ethelred of Mercia that “Nobody knew exactly where he came from.” I suddenly had a vision of this guy riding onto the pages of history out of some unknown hinterland. I wanted to write his story and, in a way, I have. Although of course the real story was that of his wife: daughter of a king, wife of a man with the powers of a king (albeit a sub-king); a woman who led her army into battle against the Vikings.
My second novel was born when I read a paper written by that same tutor. It was about Aelfhere, earl of Mercia in the 10th century, and in a little footnote there was mention of a widow who had been deprived of her lands following his death. It’s the only known reference to this woman and the supposition is that she was Aelfhere’s wife. Hmm… Why did we not know more about her? This became part, although not the whole, of the story in Alvar the Kingmaker. A central theme, yes, but there was more which needed to be told.
You see, my Anglo-Saxons are not the Anglo-Saxons of Middle Earth. They are not mystical, magical or mythical, but rather they are medieval. My stories don’t contain elves, or monsters like Grendel. The ‘Dark Ages’ covers a period of over 500 years. To lump all the Anglo-Saxons together would be like saying the Tudors were a lot like us.
I wanted my characters to be real, not caricatures.
I wanted to portray these people as, well, people.
There are many stories to be found within Anglo-Saxon history, aside from the invasions of, first, the Angles and Saxons themselves, then the Vikings and the Normans. This was a society which produced the most exquisite artwork (eg the Lindisfarne Gospels), the most intricately worked jewelled weaponry (eg the Staffordshire Hoard) a few hundred years even before the period in which my books are set.
There was sophisticated local and central government, and law codes were regularly updated. Huge chunks of my lecture time when I was a student were taken up with discussion about whether pre-Conquest England was already feudal, or whether the Normans introduced it.
So... I had my ambition to write. I had my stories. And I knew my stuff. Ask me the names of any king between AD 600-1066 and I could oblige. Ask me who invaded whose lands at any given period and why, and I could tell you.
Just one problem. I quickly discovered that I didn’t know how people lived; what they ate for breakfast, what they wore, how they built their houses and ships, which animals they reared and what type of crops they farmed.
It’s all very well having a chapter plan but not so great if you can’t actually describe what’s happening in every scene. I learned that knowing about history and having the information required to write an historical novel are not the same thing.
Luckily for me, I had contacts within the ‘industry’ who were more than happy to help, or knew someone who could. I immersed myself in my early medieval world, finding out about looms, textiles, cooking methods, flour production, and I even learned how flammable flour dust can be (a fact which served me well in one particular passage in ‘Queen’.)
I then learned that a writer needs to include only about 10% of that research in their books. For me, the art of writing an historical novel is a subtle blend, requiring equal measures of: the story, the characters, the history, and the details. When the blend is right, it should be possible to have the reader not just dip into it, but become fully submerged without those precious parts separating at any point.
Annie Whitehead is a history graduate who now works as an Early Years music teacher. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is available now. She is currently working on the novel which was a prize-winning entry in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition and which she was encouraged by judge Fay Weldon to complete.
Aethelflaed, the ‘Lady of the Mercians’ was the daughter of Alfred the Great. She was the only female leader of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Born into the royal house of Wessex at the height of the Viking wars, she is sent to her aunt in Mercia as a foster-child, only to return home when the Vikings overrun Mercia. In Wessex, she witnesses another Viking attack and this compounds her fear of the enemy.
She falls in love with a Mercian lord but is heartbroken to be given as bride to the ruler of Mercia to seal the alliance between the two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
She must learn to subjugate her feelings for her first love, overcome her indifference to her husband and win the hearts of the Mercians who despise her as a foreigner and twice make an attempt on her life.
When her husband falls ill and is incapacitated, she has to learn to rule and lead an army in his stead. Eventually she must fight to save her adopted Mercia from the Vikings and, ultimately, her own brother.
In 10th Century England,nobleman Alvar knows that securing the throne for the young and worthy King Edgar will brand him as an oath-breaker. As a fighting man, he is indispensable to the new sovereign, but his success and power gain him deadly, murderous enemies amongst those who seek favour with the king. Alvar must fight to protect his lands, and his position, and learn the subtle art of politics. He must also, as a man of principle, keep secret his love for the wife of his trusted deputy. Civil war erupts, and Alvar once again finds himself the only man capable of setting a new king upon the throne of England, an act which comes at great personal cost. His career began with a dishonourable deed to help a good king; now he must be loyal to a new king, Aethelred, whom he knows will be weak, and whose supporters have been accused of regicide. Can he bring about peace, reconcile with his enemies, and find personal happiness, whilst all the time doing his duty to his loved ones? And what of the fragile Queen, who not only depends upon him but has fallen in love with him? Aelfhere (Alvar) of Mercia was known to the chroniclers as the "The blast of the mad wind from the Western territories" but also as "The glorious earl." This is his story.